Proudly wearing his THSCA hat, white bold script on a black hat to support the Texas High School Coaches Association hundreds of miles away, Nebraska head football coach Matt Rhule stood off to the side of the stage. Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook held the microphone for just over a minute as part of a small ceremony at the Lincoln Airport. For months the university’s athletic department asked the Lincoln Airport when they’d get more flights to Texas. They stood there in March to announce just that.
Cook kept his speech short and sweet. “All I know is we’re tired of driving to Omaha,” he said, “so this is awesome.” He then teased out one of the Lincoln Airport’s new destinations. Great BBQ, home of a statue to Stevie Ray Vaughn, birthplace of Whole Foods and the home of one of the country’s top volleyball recruits, who he was off to watch two weeks later. It’s Austin, Texas.
Rhule said that brought a tear to his eye. That place is near and dear to his heart. He announced himself as a proud supporter of the Nebraska High School Coaches Association and a dedicated member of the Texas High School Coaches Association. Then he announced flights from Lincoln to Dallas.
“I stood up at the Dallas regional meeting and addressed all those coaches and I told them that the University of Nebraska is Texas’s Big Ten school,” Rhule said. “We want to recruit Dallas just like Coach Osborne did. We’re going to recruit Nebraska and we’re going to win.”
Rhule and Cook were among the Husker contingent at the Lincoln Airport in March that unveiled several new flights out of Lincoln as part of a new partnership. Through Red Way, commuters can fly nonstop from Lincoln to Minneapolis, Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, Las Vegas and Orlando. That’s on top of flights to Denver, Chicago and Houston. Most of these flights are seasonal for the time being. Corporations want to see if there’s a viable market in the Lincoln airport. While this provides a community service for weekend vacations, it is also incredibly beneficial to Nebraska athletics from a recruiting perspective. Cook and Rhule aren’t the only Nebraska coaches who want to recruit in Texas.
Those new flights are available because of a true community effort. The airport was in conversations with American Airlines to bring flights to Dallas. Those fell through and the airport looked elsewhere. The airport pursued grant funding, with a community match from the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce and the University of Nebraska. Since last September, Lincoln flies daily to Houston.
“They definitely had a stake in the game for the Houston route,” Lincoln Airport communications director Rachel Barth said.
The new flights Cook and Rhule announced are different. They’re part of the new Red Way initiative. Sarah Riches, Red Way’s chief media officer, said Red Way found an opportunity to add leisure travel to a predominantly business airport. Like in sports, analytics count for a lot. Data shows business travel isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels, but leisure travel is. Red Way offers low-cost flights because they pack planes with more passengers. They can allocate costs across more passengers. That benefits customers who want more affordable flights. As Riches explained, they hope their flights out of Lincoln show an unfulfilled market for leisure flight. While they hope the long-term project is to be self-sustainable, they enjoy the community partnership so far.
“We love that we can provide options for students and faculty and community, [that] is one of our core values as a business,” Riches told Hail Varsity. “The university plays such a big role in the spirit of Lincoln and all of Nebraska, and we are beyond honored that the university, as well as the community has helped us through their incredibly positive response.”
Barth hopes recent renovations also appeal to travelers. The airport updated amenities, purchased new furniture and conducted a $56 million terminal renovation. With three runways, one reaching 13,000 feet, those at the Lincoln Airport hope they can provide an occasional alternative to a drive up Interstate 80.
The official airport of the Huskers, those at Lincoln are catering for university-centric events. While Red Way flights won’t typically run daily, they’ve already arranged special flights on August 30 to accommodate Husker fans traveling to Minneapolis for the football season opener. The airport scheduled additional fights to Las Vegas and Orlando on October 17 to provide options during fall break. Barth explained that while the university wasn’t involved in decisions to bring new flights to Austin and Dallas, they looked forward to sharing news of those new flights.
“We knew they’d be excited because based on our conversations with Trev Alberts, conversations with other coaching people,” Barth said. “Texas is a hot market for recruiting. Not just football but volleyball and other sports. They kind of joked with us, ‘When are you going to get more Texas routes?’ We got them. Hopefully the university uses them for recruiting both students and athletes to come to Lincoln.”
Inaugural flights to Orlando and Las Vegas begin on June 8. Minneapolis, Atlanta and Dallas begin flights on June 16. Finally, inaugurals to Nashville and Austin begin on June 24.